The morning sun was only a hint in the Eastern sky as Kevin Meetze eased his boat up to the rock jetties at Murrells Inlet and began looking for areas where sheepshead had grazed on the barnacles and mussels on the rocks.

"The ocean was extremely rough," he said. "We fished both the inside and the outside of the jetties. One hour they'd bite on one side, and the next hour they'd bite on the other side."

They began catching some nice sheepshead, but by mid-morning the bite slacked off to just nibbles.

"When the tide was coming or going we were productive," he said. "But on the slack tide we did nothing but lose baits; we couldn't hook them.

"We knew it was sheepshead, but they were stealing our baits. They were feeding with their tails straight up, and it was almost impossible to detect that bite."

Then about 1:30 p.m., the tide moved again, and the bite picked up. By the time they headed for the dock Meetze and his father-in-law, Steven Newton, both of Blythewood, had boated a dozen sheepshead - all more than 5 pounds each.

That memorable day on the water occurred during late May last year. By May sheepshead will have moved well inshore and, Meetze said, May, June and July are top months for fishing the inshore jetties, groins, bridge pilings and piers for this hard-to-catch-but-wonderful-tasting saltwater inshore gamefish.

"I try to key on water temperature about 70 degrees and keep and eye on the rocks to determine where they are feeding," he said.

Top sheepshead areas this time of year, he said, include the Charleston, Murrells Inlet and Little River jetties and the Cherry Grove Pier.

"In May the Near Shore Reef at Charleston is pretty productive, and the Ten-Mile Reef at Murrells Inlet can be somewhat productive," he said. "The problem with sheepshead fishing on the reefs with fiddler crabs is that the black sea bass eat them before they get to the bottom.

"Of course, we catch some pretty nice black sea bass in the 2- to 3-pound range, and that is some pretty good eating."

Sheepshead fishing was excellent from the end of April last year right on through the summer, Meetze said.

"We caught a lot of fish, several in the 7- to 9-pound range and we released a lot of fish," he said. "But we did keep quite a few to eat."

The preferred baits for sheepshead are fiddler crabs, the little crabs that gather in droves on mud and sand flats when the tide goes out. The males raise their one large claw skyward in an attempt to impress the females in the group.

You might chase them down on the sand, but on the mud they just jump back into their hole when they see danger coming.

Meetze uses a child's beach shovel to dig the fiddlers out of the sand, and he has a unique technique for catching them when they're gathered up in a group on the sand flats.

"I take a 6-foot cast net that I've taken most of the lead weights off and throw it over them," he said. "If they're on mud, they just go down in the mud holes, but if they are on sand they will jump right up into the net.

"We used to leave here at 5:30 or 6 p.m. Friday afternoon and get down to the coast about dusk dark. We'd go out and mire up in the mud and catch what we could. Then Saturday we'd fish all day."

Then he discovered he could actually buy fiddler crabs.

"I was in a bait store at Murrell's Inlet one day and just happened to ask if they carried fiddlers, and they did," he said.

While fiddler crabs are the primary bait for sheepshead, Meetze said he and Newton were pretty successful last summer fishing for them with clam strips.

Detecting the bite of a sheepshead is difficult primarily because of the way they feed. Coastal fishermen will tell you that when fishing for sheepshead "you have to set the hook before he bites." They say that with a little grin and gleam in their eye, but they really are only half joking.

The sheepshead is called that because its mouth is more ovine than fish. In other words, a sheepshead's mouth looks like a sheep's mouth, with a full set of protruding front teeth backed by powerful molars. Old timers should picture the teeth of Edgar Bergen's dummy, Mortimer Snerd.

A species of porgy, the sheepshead needs that powerful grinding mouth because of its diet - crustaceans and mollusks, including barnacles, shrimp, small crabs and even oysters. They "graze" at rocks, piers, pilings and other structure in the water, eating whatever morsels they can pry up from the surface with those protruding front teeth.

For that reason their mouths are extremely hard - and difficult for a hook to penetrate. Because the sheepshead can take a fiddler crab in its mouth, crush it and glean the meat with almost no discernible "bite," anglers must watch for any twitch in their line and be ready to set the hook at the "feel" of movement on the other end.

But if you do get one on the other end of your line, hang on for dear life because sheepshead are tenacious, brawny fighters, determined to hold tight to the bottom and capable of strong runs once pulled away from the safety of the ocean floor. They're so strong and their mouth is so tough that most anglers use a dip net to scoop them into a boat.

Meetze got hooked on sheepshead fishing while fishing for king mackerel at the Cherry Grove Pier six or seven years ago and he's been "hard-core," he admits, for the past six years.

"I kept seeing these guys using little barnacles for bait, and I asked them one day, 'What do you catch with that?' " he said. "They said they were after sheepshead.

"They said this was a fish that by the time you feel the bite, he has got your bait. One tap, and you have to be quick to catch it."

The idea of fishing for something so adept at taking baits without an angler knowing it that sheepshead often are called "convict fish" intrigued Meetze, so he decided to try his luck.

"I fished for probably six days before I caught my first sheepshead," he said.

Since then he has taken a 9-pound, 5-ounce sheepshead off the pier and a 9-pound, 7-ounce sheepshead at Murrells Inlet.

At the pier, Meetze uses Penn rods and reels spooled with 200-pound-test braided line so he can manhandle the fish and keep them from wrapping around pilings.

At the jetties, he uses Penn rod-and-reel outfits rigged with 20-pound-test line. He ties on a 2/0 Mustad or Daichi hook and pinches on a No. 4 split shot to bounce the bait down around the rocks.

After spending several years learning how to catch sheepshead, Meetze and Newton entered the annual big-fish-take-all Sheepshead Tournament at Charleston Harbor's Wappoo Landing during April 2005. They didn't win the Charleston tournament, but they caught several nice 7-pound sheepshead and half a dozen more in the 4- to 6-pound class - and learned to fish the huge Charleston Jetties in the process.

"It was the first time I'd ever fished the Charleston Jetties," Meetze said. "We went all the way to the end, and I was still marking rocks on the bottom out from there. That was where we caught the bigger fish, but it was so rough, we couldn't sit out there very long."

The first day of competition, high winds brought high roller after high roller crashing across the rock walls.

"We'd pull the boat up to the jetties with 4- to 6-foot swells, throw out the anchor, then back out real quick and sit and fish that area," he said.

But, while the fishing was uncomfortable and somewhat dangerous, it was also good, he said.

The first day their catch included a 7-pound, 3-ounce sheepshead and a 7-pound, 4-ounce sheepshead, plus other smaller fish, but the wind was so rough they came in at 1 p.m.

"The second day we caught all small fish, nothing over 5 pounds," Meetze said. "We were fishing for that one big fish, but we brought home what we caught because sheepshead are probably the best fish I've ever eaten.

"A little salt and pepper and lemon juice, grill 'em, bake 'em, fry 'em. Ain't no bad way to cook a sheepshead."